Utah will bring one of the Pac-12’s most dynamic offenses to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Friday night, featuring arguably the conference’s best running back in Zack Moss, along with a dual-threat quarterback, physical offensive line, and potent group of pass catchers.
And while conversation following Tuesday’s practice hit on the Utes, and the ways they will challenge the Trojans, the USC defensive coaches and players were also looking internally, focusing on what needs to change from a 30-27 overtime loss to BYU, to being able to take down the preseason Pac-12 favorites.
“I’m always going to say it has nothing to do with them, defensive backs coach Greg Burns said. “As long as we’re doing what we need to do — as long as we’re locked into our assignments and responsibilities and trust our teammates — we’ll be fine.”
Several longterm issues again cropped up against BYU, as a mobile quarterback at times ran circles around USC defenders in and out of the backfield, picking up yards via scrambling or buying enough time to eventually find open receivers. There were missed tackles, or tackle attempts that resulted in yards after contact. And there were chunks of yards picked up in the running game outside the tackles.
USC coaches and players addressed all those issues and certainly have a gameplan to combat them. Now it’s just about getting it to show up on Friday night against a team that is very much capable of doing all those things.
“The quarterback (Tyler Huntley) is very much a dual-threat guy that can make plays on his feet in the running game, out of the pocket if he wants to extend the play and throw down the field, and then obviously as a drop-back guy too, putting the ball on the money down the field,” USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.
As for Moss, Pendergast said: “He’s a back that can hurt you a lot of different ways. He’s very powerful running between the tackles. He’s very patient when they run him on the perimeter and they like to match him up on defensive backs. And he’s very hard to get down. The first guy on contact very rarely gets him on the ground, so we have to do a very good job of being under control and bringing our feet when we tackle.”
The concept of sure tackling will be a theme this week, and the players are aware of the improvement that needs to come there.
“This week we have a heavy tackle emphasis, linebacker Palaie Gaoteote (photo above) said. “Keeping our head up, eyes open, wrapping up hard, and driving our feet after contact.”
“It’s a fundamental issue,” defensive end Christian Rector said. “We have to work on that — tackling in space, gang tackling, pursuing to the ball — all of it’s important.”
As for teams getting out wide against the Trojans — something Fresno State, Stanford, and BYU all had varying degrees of success doing, and something Utah is absolutely capable of running at USC — Pendergast said there are improvements that can be made.
“I think some of it is we have to tackle better on the perimeter,” he said. “Some of it is we have to recognize it a little bit better. And when you’re a team that is going to take away runs in between the tackles, you’re going to get more perimeter runs, and we’ve kind of expected that in the first three games. We just have to keep working on it.”
While Moss will get plenty of attention from the USC defense, the Utah receivers are capable of putting together some big plays. Last season, Huntley put together the best passing game of his career against the Trojans, throwing for 341 yards and four touchdowns. They will again challenge the USC secondary, which, to this point, would receive a C- grade, according to Burns.
“I’m a hard grader,” he said, “because I always think we have things to improve, get better.”
Burns said he knows there have been plays left out on the field that his defensive backs are capable of making, but haven’t. He doesn’t consider his group to be inexperienced anymore, considering the playing time they’ve received through three games. But he’s still impressed with how a young group has responded so far.
“For a young group, these guys don’t flinch,” he said. “It’s not too big.”
Ultimately, this is a huge game for USC and its 2019 season. The winner is firmly in the driver’s seat for the Pac-12 South title, and Utah — favored in this game — is looking to make a statement with its first win in the Coliseum. Make no mistake, the Trojans know what this game means.
“I think this is a defining game for us,” Rector said. “This game does mean a lot for us, and we knew that coming into the season.”
Nickelback Greg Johnson returned to practice on Tuesday after missing Monday’s session while in concussion protocol. Defensive backs coach Greg Burns said he expects to have Johnson against Utah on Friday night.
Offensive tackle Liam Jimmons was also suited up for practice after missing some time, including the BYU game.
Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart both sat out Tuesday’s practice. With Clay Helton unavailable to media on Tuesday, there were no injury updates given. That will certainly be a question asked of both those players following Wednesday practice.
Defensive end Christian Rector practiced on Monday and practiced again on Tuesday, apparently showing no ill-effects from working on his previously injured ankle that caused him to miss the BYU game.
There were no other updates, as offensive linemen Andrew Vorhees, Clayton Bradley, and Bernard Schirmer, defensive linemen De’jon Benton and Jacob Lichtenstein, and linebackers Eli’jah Winston and Malik McClain all continue to sit out.